THE STORY – While fleeing from dangerous assailants, an assassin comes out of hiding to protect her daughter she left earlier in life.
THE CAST – Jennifer Lopez, Joseph Fiennes, Omari Hardwick & Gael García Bernal
THE TEAM – Niki Caro (Director), Misha Green, Andrea Berloff & Peter Craig (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes
When Lorene Scafaria’s crime drama “Hustlers” was released in 2019, consensus grew around praising the under-appreciated acting talent of Jennifer Lopez. In the film, Lopez plays Ramona, a stripper-turned-con woman who leads a string of robberies on Wall Street criminals. The character was an electric reminder of Lopez’s ability to pierce through you with perseverance to the point where you can’t help but go along for the ride with her. She has possessed this quality for decades, notably through her screen work in the 1990s, from Gregory Nava’s “Selena” to Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.” This precise star quality has seen Lopez easily shift from genre to genre over the years. While the material she gets isn’t always on par with her talent, she can carry a story with charisma alone. Lopez’s latest role as a military-trained assassin calls on a very specific set of skills, which she masters wonderfully. In Niki Caro’s crime thriller “The Mother,” which hits Netflix just in time for Mother’s Day weekend, Lopez’s character is out for revenge. Her past has taken a toll both physically and emotionally, as she has learned to repress her feelings out of self-preservation and trauma. The film around her is flawed; the screenplay rushes through storylines, and the action sequences are sometimes heavily edited beyond cohesion. But in a sea of countless male-led assassin films out there, “The Mother” is a refreshing entry focused on a woman’s perseverance.
In “The Mother,” Lopez plays an unnamed deadly assassin who comes out of hiding to protect the daughter she left behind from a merciless gang of criminals. The film’s traumatic introduction quickly establishes the danger that lies ahead. While Lopez’s character (the Mother) attempts to strike a deal with FBI agents following dangerous entanglements, the meeting turns deadly, and the fate of her child is at risk. From the first few scenes alone, it is abundantly clear why the Mother gives up her newborn daughter: it is the only way to ensure her child’s safety and anonymity for the future. The film makes a time jump to several years later, where the Mother is living a life of solitude at a remote cabin in Alaska. Though not without secret connections to her past, such as an FBI agent (Omari Hardwick) and a former military friend (a sadly under-used Paul Raci). Through such connections, she discovers that her now twelve-year-old daughter Zoe (Lucy Paez) might be in grave danger and immediately reemerges into Zoe’s life as a fierce protector on the sidelines.
The film marks an eclectic change of pace for director Niki Caro, given her previous range of credits such as “Whale Rider,” “North Country,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and “Mulan.” “The Mother” continues a compelling filmography of female-led narratives and adds a refreshing perspective to a familiar genre of storytelling. With a steadfast approach to the mother-daughter dynamic of “The Mother,” Caro establishes a strong core for her film. She maintains the drive that pushes Lopez’s character through wild circumstances, from fighting off kidnappers in a parking lot to wreaking havoc on her biggest enemies. A mustache-twirling Joseph Fiennes and a criminally under-used Gael García Bernal play arms dealers (and former partners of Lopez’s character) who will stop at nothing to put her in harm’s way.
Fast-paced filmmaking mirrors the urgency the Mother possesses of doing everything in her power to keep Zoe out of the danger zone, which becomes increasingly difficult circumstantially and hits hard emotionally. Lopez’s character has to navigate the weight of her sacrifices and the innate need to protect Zoe while taking into consideration the loving family that raised her child. A committed performance by Lopez makes it especially easy to feel the Mother’s unconditional love come through. She also brings a compelling stoicism to how the character carries herself. The heartbreak of having to reemerge back into Zoe’s life with a sense of denial, unable to step into the mother role openly, wears painfully on her facial expressions. Complementing the work of Lopez is relative newcomer Lucy Paez, whose earnest performance as Zoe makes the mother-daughter relationship all the more resonant.
The film reaches more interesting heights in its second half when it focuses on how the mother-daughter dynamic is shaped by Lopez’s character resurfacing in Zoe’s life. The screenplay gives the two characters a bit of time to communicate some of the things they had imagined wanting to say to each other. The writing also explores parallels between motherhood and wildlife, showing animals protecting their cubs with the same level of ferocity as the Mother character. Despite the promise of the film’s second half and the entertainment value of watching Lopez fight through every imaginable obstacle to protect her daughter, the film feels unexplored to its full potential. Large gaps in the story leave more questions than answers, for instance, regarding why the threats posed to these characters operate on such relentless levels. The dual story of being a personal revenge thriller and a mother-daughter chronicle is also unbalanced. This unevenness can be felt mostly in the film’s first half, which rushes through plot points for the Mother to reach Zoe. The film also incorporates heavily edited action sequences throughout that can be frustrating to follow.
What stays balanced over the course of “The Mother” is the unwavering drive and spirit of Lopez’s performance. She strikes a medium between never making you question why the Mother does what she does while also keeping you curious about what her character is masking beneath her well-choreographed stoicism. You can’t help but go on the journey with her, however much it calls for suspension of disbelief when it comes to over-the-top villain interactions and choppy fight sequences. With the involvement of Lopez, both as an actor and producer, there is a palpable drive to tell this story. A poignancy buried in “The Mother” shines when given the open space to do so. While the screenplay does not deviate enough from many of the formulaic beats of an assassin revenge thriller, Niki Caro’s direction and Jennifer Lopez’s star quality maintain the film’s commitment to being a mother-daughter story at its core.